Dementia symptoms could be warded off with languages learning

LONDON: Adopting a language in addition to one’s mother tongue may not just serve as an impressive skill – it could be a way to fight fronto­temporal lobe dementia, with research revealing the culturally diverse have a resilience to the disease.

The University of Sydney’s research investigated behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) – a young-onset variation of dementia – and found people born overseas who spoke a language other than English could tolerate bvFTD longer before symptoms evolved.

The university’s School of Psychology clinical researcher Amira Skeggs led the study, made up of more than 100 dementia patients from English-speaking countries such as Australia, the US and Britain and those from non-English-speaking countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, and Fiji.

The participants were divided into three groups: monolingual Australians; people who spoke English as their first language; and people who had a foreign nat­ive tongue.

“There is something in activating the brain throughout your lifetime; and switching between languages has also been found to be helpful,” Ms Skeggs said.

“When it comes to neuro­degenerative syndromes like bvFTD, culturally diverse people can have a later onset of the disease compared to monolingual Australians because they have other factors which could increase their resilience or cognitive reserve.”

The findings are not owed to a person’s race but to an ability to speak another language, Ms Skeggs said.

This means an Australian who learnt another language in school and later became fluent could also build resilience to fight dementia symptoms.

“In Australia, we have … a lot of migrants who have high levels of education and speak several languages,” she said.

“That’s not to say that someone who was born in Australia and has the same education, same profession and speaks several languages would be any different.”

After comparing Western and non-Western participants, Ms Skeggs is calling for more sophisticated diagnostic criteria for dementia, saying cultural differ­ences weighed on the Dementia Severity Rating Scale.

“The specific clinical symptoms that have emerged in the diagnostic criteria are based on profiles that Western patients have shown; a high level of apathy is something we typically see in Western patients, which compares to other patients from Asian backgrounds, which we found tend to show more irritability,” she said.

“The tests themselves may have specific questions biased towards Australian culture.”